Rugby League in the Czech Republic

The 13-man code is coming to Prague

Milan Mrtýnek is hoping that 13 will prove to be a lucky number.

The former rugby union coach, and current RC Slavia Praha committee member, is bringing rugby league - a 13-a-side offshoot of 15-man union - to the Czech Republic.

Mrtýnek, whose day job is running a sports-tour company, was first introduced to rugby league in Yorkshire, northern England, last year.

"My wife is English, and she has family up north in Scarborough," he explains. "We saw in the newspaper that Bradford were playing St. Helens, so I said I wanted to see the sport. So we went there, and it was an excellent experience - a nice summer day, Friday evening, a full Odsal stadium.

"Straight away it found a small place in my heart," he adds. "I had to appreciate the wonderful athletes and the very professional attitude."

Compared to rugby union, Mrtýnek says, rugby league is "in some ways ... a faster and harder game. Not so many tactics, not so much kicking."

But while rugby union is a well-established minority sport in the Czech Republic, rugby league is virtually unknown.

Chance meeting
Eager to give the game a try, Mrtýnek returned to Prague where, through a chance meeting, he came into contact with Kevin Rudd, the Rugby League European Federation's (RLEF's) first development officer. (Rudd's sister-in-law has a Czech husband and lives in nearby Průhonice.)

Charged with spreading the rugby league gospel on the continent, Rudd describes his role as "a vocation" rather than just a job.

With that in mind, Rudd travelled to Prague earlier this month to oversee a training session organized by Mrtýnek.

Held, because of bitterly cold weather, in an indoor basketball hall, the training session couldn't replicate the game's speed and power but Rudd was able to give the Czech players a concise, intense introduction to the sport.

As well as teaching the skills and tactics unique to the game, Rudd also used his laptop to show the assembled players footage from a game between Georgia and Serbia.

Played in front of an 8,000-strong crowd, and televised live on Georgian TV, the video is an impressive illustration of rugby league's potential in Eastern Europe.

After the session, Rudd declared himself impressed with the talent on show. "There were four or five players with natural rugby league ability and natural ball skill, and with the right coaching they could play rugby league very well," he said.

But is it realistic to expect the Czechs to put together a national team?

"It's happened in other countries," Rudd says. "It's happened in Germany, Estonia, and it's happened in Serbia. It's happened in Georgia. A lot of it is to do with the skill of the management off the field."

Rugby apartheid
Played mainly in northern England, Australia, New Zealand and southern France, the sport makes up in passion what it lacks in geographical coverage.

The 13-man code emerged as a separate sport following a split with rugby union in 1895, when the game was still amateur.

While rugby in southern England was a middle-class sport, teams in northern England began to compensate their players for the time they took off work to play the game.

These "broken time" payments contravened rugby union rules on professionalism, and the sport's London-based governing body, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), began to suspend northern clubs and players from competition.

Angry at the RFU's actions, the northern clubs formed a semi-professional breakaway competition, later known as the Rugby League.

In retaliation, the RFU imposed a kind of rugby apartheid, banning any player who played rugby league - even at an amateur level.

Peace between the codes finally broke out in 1995, when rugby union accepted professionalism.

As a result of its history, rugby league has developed into a separate sport from union, governed by different rules.

Besides the number of players on the pitch, the main difference is rugby league's "play the ball" rule. Roughly comparable to American football's "downs," rugby league teams get six attempts to advance the ball the full length of the pitch.

"In rugby union, you have to release the ball when you're tackled," Rudd explains. "In rugby league, you keep hold of it and you have six tackles to score. On the sixth tackle, if you haven't scored, you kick it to the opposition, and they come back to you, whereas in rugby union, it can be continuous possession."

Peaceful coexistence?
Both Rudd and Mrtýnek emphasise that they aren't promoting league as an alternative to union.

"It's not 'rather than', it's 'as well as'," says Rudd. "Many people around the world now are playing rugby league and rugby union. The countries that are [playing both] are generally going further ahead of those that aren't. It's no coincidence that rugby union teams in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Australia have all got top rugby league coaches on their coaching staff."

Mrtýnek, meanwhile, hopes he can avoid any conflict between the codes. "I'm just trying to be very open about it, you know? Approach the right people at the right time, try to do it the right way."

"Our only way to go, together with rugby union, is to play a short, summer season, to give union players another option," says Mrtýnek.

The new Czech Association of Rugby League (CZARL) has turned down a chance to play in this year's World Cup, but their plans for the year ahead are still ambitious.

In July, a UK universities touring side, the Pioneers, will stage training camps in the Czech Republic; then, in August, a Czech national team is set to play its first full international, against the Netherlands, in Rotterdam. There are also plans to play Germany later that month, possibly in Prague.

• For more information on CZARL and rugby league in the Czech Republic, email Iain Sellers

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